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Memorable Manitobans: Tapastanum [Donald William Sinclair Ross] (c1805-1881)

Cree leader.

Tapastanum was born about 1805, probably in the Setting Lake / Split Lake area, and began his lifelong relationship with his wife “Mary” in the late 1830s. [1] In 1838 his name was included in a census of Aboriginal people trading with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) where he was listed as a single adult hunter in the Nelson House trading area. [2] Tapastanum left trading at Nelson House in favour of Norway House in 1843 [3] where post journals reflect his leadership. [4] In 1867 Tapastanum was identified as a “Chief” by missionary Charles Stringfellow in a note in the Rossville (Norway House) baptismal register, next to the baptisms of two of his daughters: “Book shows latter persons are daughter[s] of the Indian Chief still heathen T[a]past[a]num.” [5] In 1868, at the Rossville Mission (Norway House) Tapastanum left a strong impression on Methodist missionary E. R. Young and his wife Elizabeth. Soon after they arrived at Norway House, Tapastanum visited the couple. Elizabeth Young wrote in her reminiscences:

An Old Wood Indian came into the Mission one day, with his squaw & made himself perfectly at-home …. Mr Young at once made it his business to entertain him by showing him through the Mission house…. He was most gorgeously gotten up, down the outsides of his leggin’s were a string of bells, & in front of his breast, a round looking glass, and opposite in the back another. … It was almost impossible to get near the point of saying good-bye. [6]

Although some of his family were baptized by Methodist missionaries at Rossville during the 1860s and early 1870s, Tapastanum declined both Methodist and then Anglican efforts to convert him. [7] Writing from Norway House to Archdeacon Cowley, on 21 August 1873, Church of England missionary Reverend James Settee related that the “Nelson Indians” who had agreed to help support a Church, had requested the Church be built “above Split Lake where the Nelson Indians have fixed upon” and that Tapastanum, “the head conjurer of the Nelson River” would travel with him to show him where the church should be located. [8] In Settee’s Annual Letter of 1874, he recounted how, at Christmas, the local families met back at the mission. The elders of the group told him they had decided that they would prefer to have a mission built farther south, citing more opportunities for employment and agriculture and Settee left the following spring. [9]

When, in 1875, Tapastanum did eventually agree to be baptized, the Methodist missionary John Ruttan wrote that his baptism “was an interesting, nay thrilling sight. To see such a noted conjurer as he, stand before a large congregation …. is something long to be remembered.” [10] Ruttan added to the register of Tapastanum’s baptism: “A noted conjuror for many years, who long resisted the teachings of Christianity,” baptized 11 July 1875. [11]

In the summer of 1875, the residents of Norway House anxiously anticipated the arrival of Lieutenant Governor Alexander Morris and his treaty party to negotiate what would become Treaty Five. From Morris’s point of view, the area to be treated and most of the terms of the treaty had been set by an Order in Council before he and his party left from Fort Garry in September of that year. [12] Morris left his first treaty stop, Berens River, thinking he would meet with a single band at Norway House. But when he arrived at Norway House and asked the assembled group to elect a chief, he found himself dealing not with one band, but two. [13] Following negotiations with Tapastanum, 24 September 1875, Treaty Five included areas not authorized by the Order in Council given to Morris, including John Scott’s Lake, the area where Tapastanum and his family lived, and the Pimicikamak people were signatories to Treaty Five. [14]

On 1 October 1875, “Mary Ross,” aged 65 years, was baptized at the Rossville Mission by Ruttan, and she and Tapastanum were formally married in a Methodist service at the parsonage. In the register of the marriage, Ruttan noted: “After living together about 40 odd years and having a large family lately being baptized are now married.” [15] Tapastanum, Donald William Sinclair Ross, was the treaty chief of the Cross Lake Band from the time of treaty in 1875 to his death in September 1881. In 1930, anthropologist A. Irving Hallowell stopped in Cross Lake where he experienced his first “conjuring performance.” Hallowell later wrote, “The conjurer was a Cree, a picturesque old-timer by the name of papamotèwigamau (walking boss), said to be ninety years of age.” In a footnote, he noted that Papamotèwigamau’s father was Tapastanum, “radiates light (an allusion to the sun),” who “was also a conjuror and one of the most famous shamans of the Lake Winnipeg region.” [16] Descendants of Tapastanum continue to live in Pimicikamak territory and the community still recalls his place in their history. He left a lasting legacy to both the Pimicimamak people and to Canada.


This profile was prepared by Anne Lindsay.

1. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (HBCA) B.236/z/10, York Factory Miscellaneous Records fs. 88, 87. In this census he is noted to be the brother of Wachackenasees (also a single adult hunter) and nephew of “Pucky,” and Pucky is listed as a relative of “Star,” all of them trading at Nelson House. Wesleyan Missionary General Register, 1840-1892, Original Registers of Marriages, Rossville: 1875, Rossville, number 316, 1 October 1875.

2. HBCA B.236/z/10 York Factory Miscellaneous Records fs. 87, 88.

3. HBCA, B.195/z/1, Fort Seaborn [Nelson River House] Miscellaneous.

4. HBCA B.154/a/43, Norway House Post Journal 1844-1845 to B.154/a/67, Norway House Post Journal 1868-1869. See particularly, B.154/a/53, Norway House Post Journal, 1850-1851: Sept. 4 f. 6.

5. Wesleyan Missionary General Register, 1840-1892, Original Registers of Marriages, Rossville: 1875, Rossville, number 1312, 1313.

6. Elizabeth Young. In the fiftys & sixtys…” 1927 E. B. Y. diary & notes – acc 12,222, Archives of Ontario.

7. John Ruttan, letter, Rossville, 3 August 1875 in Missionary notices of the Methodist Church of Canada [3rd ser. no. 4 (Oct. 1875)] (Toronto: Mission Rooms [1875]), 63-64. Available through Early Canadiana Online.

8. James Settee Sr. to Cowley, Norway House, 21 August 1873, Church Missionary Society Reel A100, f. 79 ff.

9. Annual Letter, James Settee, Sr,. to Mr Fenn, Church Missionary Society (CMS) Microfilm Reel A101, 30 November 1874, f. 29ff.

10. John Ruttan, letter, Rossville, 3 August 1875 in Missionary Notices of the Methodist Church of Canada, 3rd ser. no. 4 (Oct. 1875) (Toronto: Mission Rooms, 1875), 64. Available through Early Canadiana Online.

11. Rossville, Methodist Baptisms, 1582.

12. Alexander Morris. The Treaties of Canada with the Indians of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, including the negotiations on which they were based, and other information relating thereto (Belfords, Clarke, 1880), 148.

13. “Missionary Meeting.” Manitoba Free Press, 4 December 1875, p. 5.

14. See Library and Archives Canada: Item: Treaty with Indians on either side of Lake Winnipeg - [Minister of] Interior 2 July – Expedicency [?] of negotiating; Order-in-Council Number: 1875-0707. Date Introduced: 1875/07/02 Date Considered: 1875/07/02 Date Approved: 1875/07/09 Reference: RG2, Privy Council Office, Series A-1-a, For Order in Council see volume 335, Reel C-3312, Access code: 90. Register Number: Series A-1-d, Volume 2755 A manuscript copy of the treaty is also available through Library and Archives Archivianet:

15. United Church Archives, Original Register of Marriages…, 14 June 1840, No. 316, No. 1624.

16. The Role of Conjuring in Saulteaux Society (Philadelphia: Publications of the Philadelphia Anthropological Society, vol. 2, 1942), 16, 16n.

Page revised: 6 September 2009

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